Anki Vector – Robot butler at your service
Remember Anki Cozmo from 2017? That adorable little robot was Amazon’s best-selling toy that year, with his big personality and slew of interactive games making the likes of Teksta and Furby look prehistoric in comparison. Cozmo now has a new sibling; the Anki Vector boasts a bigger brain and even greater potential.
Aside from a paint job, Vector looks near-identical to Cozmo. However, the new robot on the block isn’t a replacement or a mere Cozmo 2.0. He comes with a unique set of skills that caters to an entirely different audience.
While Cozmo is a playful little ‘bot that will delight small children, Vector is looking to offer an experience that’s similar to the likes of an Amazon Echo, just with a more adorable personality. He can tell you the weather, play a game of Blackjack and – in the future – will even be able to control your smart home.
There’s no doubt that Vector is one of the smartest robots yet, but with a steep price of £250, does he offer enough to be a worthwhile Christmas present?
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Anki Vector – Design
Not met an Anki robot before? Picture a character from Pixar’s Wall-E made real, brimming with a cheeky, playful personality.
The Anki Vector just about fits into your palm, making it seem perhaps a little expensive next to a Meccano Meccanoid. This size is deliberate, however. It’s “much less intimidating if it’s the size of a gerbil,” says Anki co-founder Mark Palatucci.
Vector looks very similar to Cozmo; he even has the same forklift at the front so he can pick up and play with his bundled smart cubes. Vector is very robust, too: throw him across the living room and he’ll suffer little to no damage, although he’ll probably be pretty grumpy for the rest of the day.
And, of course, he has that beautifully animated face. At first glance you’ll see two green blobs on a bright, black high-res IPS display. Spend some time with Vector, though, and you’ll see him pull all sorts of cute and goofy faces. Anki claims there are over 1000 different animations here, and since Vector is capable of briefly turning his face into a card game or a weather report, this figure isn’t all too surprising.
The only striking difference between Vector and Cozmo is the former’s new gold and black colour scheme, which is more suited to a mature audience compared to Cozmo’s white-and-red Cartoon Network vibe.
A more subtle addition to Vector’s design is the screen on his back. Say “Hey Vector” and this screen will flash blue, indicating that he’s heard you. This essentially works just like the light-up ring on top of an Amazon Echo.
Anki Vector vs Cozmo
Both Vector and Cozmo are cute little bulldozers that react with animated OLED “eyes”, but on the inside they’re completely different.
Cozmo relies heavily on your phone; your handset does most of the work. It connects over Bluetooth to tell Cozmo what to do, and interacts with special blocks that come in the box.
Vector is more autonomous, and much more powerful. Cozmo has a 100MHz Cortex M4 CPU; Vector a quad-core Snapdragon chipset, similar to one you might see in an entry-level smartphone. Like most of us, Vector needs an internet connection to do just about anything. With one, he becomes a whole lot of fun.
You treat Vector a little like you would an Amazon Echo speaker. Say “Hey Vector, my name is Ryan” and the robot will respond with a “hi”, using voice recognition to learn and say your name. However, unlike a smart speaker, Vector will turn towards you, lift up that little OLED face to yours, and use its camera to scan your face so that it can recognise you in the future.
No matter how many times I saw him repeat someone’s name, it always gave me goosebumps. The makings of something creepy? Perhaps. But one look at Vector and any fears are sure to leave you. Also, importantly, the ‘bot doesn’t store voice clips – unlike home assistants.
Related: Anki Cozmo review
Anki Vector – Motion and sensors
Left to figure out a surrounding on its own, Vector will explore, testing out his environment by nudging objects with its forklift. I’ve had to be careful about him knocking my drink off the table a fair few times. Like Cozmo, Vector has two rubbery tracks that let him manoeuvre over flat surfaces and most shallow-pile carpets, and he has a wide array of sensors.
Alongside a 1080p camera, there’s a front laser for sensing objects within 1 metre. Four IR-based “drop sensors” on the ‘bot’s underside allow it to determine when the floor beneath him ends, so Vector won’t fall off the edge of a table.
It works – most of the time. My lounge table has a curved edge, which appeared to fool Vector on numerous occasions at the start. That said, a recent update has seemingly made Vector more cautious around table edges, so hopefully he’ll be better at sensing non-straight edges.
The Anki Vector’s battery lasts for around an hour with numerous interactions, and when it’s low on charge the ‘bot will return to its base automatically. This is one of Vector’s most impressive tricks, since he can locate the charging station all by himself and then reverse neatly into place. Seriously, Vector puts your car-parking skills to shame.
Vector uses four far-field mics with beamforming for voice recognition, similar to those seen in smart speakers. His reaction to your voice is noticeably slower than Amazon Alexa, but Vector does use natural speech algorithms so you don’t have to be hyper-exact about the wording of your interactions.
Still, if you’re familiar with using Alexa and Google Assistant, you’ll likely get a little frustrated by the delay or the frequent need to repeat your commands multiple times. I actually had a little more luck attempting a terrible American accent, although Anki says it has worked with some big names on natural language processing.
Anki Vector – Features
So what can you actually do with Vector? To start, you’ll be able to ask him general knowledge questions and trivia. Vector will answer in his characteristic voice through the speaker on the robot’s head. You can ask Vector to take a photo, set a timer, give you a fist-bump with his bulldozer arm and play a game of Blackjack on hisOLED screen.
He can give you the current weather report for cities around the world, too, accompanied by a little on-screen temperature reading followed by an animated sun, rain and so on. Vector will even judder about like a yucked-out toddler if it’s raining outside. It’s all rather charming, in a Pixar-inspired manner. Which is no surprise, given that there are actual ex-Pixar animators in Anki’s team.
It sounds like Vector offers plenty then. Truth be told, those tricks get old pretty fast. I introduced Vector to my young cousins, aged 8 and 11 years old. While both were enthralled with him for the first 20 or so minutes, they soon lost interest and returned to ogling their tablets. This isn’t what you’d want to see if you’d shelled out £250 on a Christmas gift.
Then again, Vector isn’t squarely aimed at children. His only proper game is Blackjack, after all. But even for adults, I think Vector is currently lacking in features. Sure, weather updates and timers are both useful, but my Amazon Echo Dot is better at delivering that information, and it costs just £50.
Anki argues that Vector isn’t an Echo Dot rival, citing his charming personality as a means to attract a different audience. But while the gleeful bleeps and bloops are indeed adorable when you’re playing games and dishing out fist bumps, they can quickly become irritating when you’re trying to watch a movie in peace.
Even when you shut him down, Vector will sometimes startle you with an audible snore or even spring back to life when he senses someone nearby. Anki likens Vector to a pet – and that’s probably a perfect summary of Vector. He’s super-cute, but also incredibly needy.
Anki Vector – Future updates
At launch, Vector is certainly a work-in-progress, but the good news is that many other features are planned to arrive via software updates. Anki’s Overdrive car-racing kit and Cozmo have been such popular Christmas gifts in past years, it isn’t a surprise that Anki wants to get the Vector ‘bot on shelves now rather than let it brew until feature-complete.
Other features on the Anki to-do list include notifications (email and so on), calendar, music recognition, 360-degree photos, smart home control, security camera features and integration with Tile, the “key tracker” gadget.
Alexa support is also confirmed to be coming to Vector, which will allow him to interact and command any device that’s already compatible with Amazon’s voice assistant. How Alexa will work with Vector’s unique personality remains to be seen, but I’ll revise this review once the update becomes available.
Vector’s personality may roll out of the box fully formed, but you’ll want to come back to it with every update to see what else it can do. Anki says it will refer to the online Vector community to see which features it should implement next.
An SDK is coming, too, to enable tinkerers to create their own software for Vector. It uses Python, which is one of the less daunting programming languages out there. Nevertheless, it still isn’t something newcomers will be able to drop into.
Anki’s Palatucci says there are no plans to add an app store-like interface: it’s just too much work for a company that, while successful, is still small.
However, it does mean Vector has Raspberry Pi-like potential. Cozmo has already demonstrated this. It offers similar creator tools and there’s a great little community of developers who share their projects online. With a little tech know-how, you can try these out without programming them yourself.
You can treat Anki Vector like a toy, but there’s real STEM educational potential here too.
Anki Vector Verdict
Anki Vector isn’t a direct successor nor a replacement for the Cozmo robot – and that’s important to note. While Cozmo will keep you kids entertained for hours, Vector is more focused on being helpful to the whole family.
Those who find digital assistants like Alexa and Siri too cold and impersonal will absolutely love Vector’s cartoonish personality. Seeing him bleep happily when he recognises you is as heartwarming as your pooch greeting you at the door.
But at £250, you’re likely to expect more features from Vector. Fortunately, Anki will be continuously updating Vector with new skills, including the ability to control smart light and calendar notes. And by allowing users to request additional features, it’s hard not to get excited about Vector’s limitless potential. Hopefully Anki will be able to implement a mute option, too, so your Netflix binges aren’t repeatedly interrupted.
So if you’re buying Vector now, be aware that he’s still got a long way to go until he becomes the full package. For now, though, he’s still an excellent pet substitute that offers oodles of charm – with the added advantage that he won’t leave an unwelcome mess on the carpet.